In honour of all the Christmas cookie photos being flaunted on Facebook these days, and because I'm making Smartie Cookies, which were my childhood favourite (except now I add rum), I thought I'd repost this one for you. Best read while you down copious amounts of coffee with Baileys while contemplating a ruined batch of cookies. (Originally published in 2009)
When I moved to the country, I left behind a couple of girlfriends with whom I’ve been pals for many years. We meet up every so often to drink, laugh, commiserate and rant together. We do not, however, bake together, and that's likely what has kept our friendship so stable.
You hear about women who congregate annually and form baking coalitions in someone's kitchen. Dough and hilarity ensue. Dozens of exotic cookies are baked and shared amongst the group, then everyone goes home to smugly fill their freezers to the brim with holiday baking.
In theory, this all sounds very Martha Stewart. It sounds like something a country woman, or at least a woman who recently moved to the country, should do, and our kitchen at Someday just begs to be socialized in. Bright and spacious, with lots of counter space, it’s the perfect place for a baking party. I can practically hear it whispering, "If you bake it, they will come.”
Sometimes I sigh and wish my sisters and city friends lived closer so we could have our own bake-bonding sessions. Then I attempt to make cookies or cupcakes and the burning smell snaps me back to reality: I would probably kill anyone who tried to share my kitchen. Although I come from a long line of amazing cooks, baking isn't my forte. I never learned the fine art of making pie crust from scratch or how to produce the giant pans of squares that are a staple here in Bruce County. And as my younger sister or D could tell you, I don’t play well with others in the kitchen. I’m bossy and not very forgiving when things go wrong.
My city girlfriends are not without a sense of humour. A few years ago, they gave me a cookie press for Christmas. They know about my baking dysfunction, but they also know I am addicted to sweets and still occasionally try to make stuff from scratch. This past December, the weather outside being frightful, I decided to give in, assume my position as a country woman and bake some Christmas cookies. Shortbread - that old Yuletide classic - seemed a logical choice, and I asked my mother-in-law to help. Shirley, quite simply, is a kitchen goddess. She stews, cans, preserves, roasts - she does it all. She is especially adept in the baking department, so I figured that with her help, I couldn't possibly screw up.
We sat down at her kitchen table to read and re-read the hallowed shortbread recipe that I’d weaseled out of a colleague. Every year, my colleague made dozens of delicate cookies and brought them into the office. Her cookies were incredible, the type of shortbread that melts in your mouth, pressed in beautiful designs and decorated with tiny candies. I loved them so much that she used to bring me a separate tin for my own personal consumption. When my friends gave me the cookie press, I begged my colleague for her recipe, which she relinquished after much coaxing. I had the press, I had the recipe, and I had Shirley. There would be no burning smell today.
Shirley and I unpacked the cookie press, took it apart, admired the different patterns. We measured the ingredients for the dough and mashed everything together with our hands. Things were going swimmingly until we jammed the dough into the press and attempted to mould our first cookie in the shape of a wreath. I clicked the trigger of the press and looked down at the cookie sheet. Nothing. I tried again. Still nothing. I let Shirley try. No cookie. I shook the press like it was a martini mixer, smacked it vigorously and tried again. Nada.
I could feel the curse words I’d promised myself I would not say bubbling to the surface, and forced them down. I was in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, and needed to remain calm. There couldn’t be any fits of cookie rage today. Shirley must have sensed I was about to pitch the stupid press through her screen door. She gently extricated it from my clenched fists and set it on the table. “Let’s read the instructions again,” she suggested.
Upon further examination, the instructions on the cookie-press box warned us not to use a cold cookie sheet (not a problem, as Shirley’s house is always a toasty 75 degrees), and not to use a non-stick surface. Well, who owns a cookie sheet these days that isn't non-stick? We looked at each other in disgust.
“What if we added a little water to the dough?” said Shirley after a few moments of silence in which I imagined running over the cookie press with Carman’s jeep. We added a little water, smushed the dough back into the press and voila! out came our first cookie. It looked like my fantasy about Carm’s jeep had come true. We changed the pattern to the tree and tried a few more. They looked like deflated, Charlie Brown Christmas trees. And so it went.
Three dozen pressed cookies and as many suppressed swear words later, I discovered that the oven wouldn't heat up. “That’s strange,” said my mother-in-law. “It worked today when I made the roast beef.” I was starting to think the cookie press was cursed.
When we finally did get the oven going and the cookies were baked, we sat down at the table with mugs of tea and sampled our handiwork. We made the appropriate "My, aren't these yummy!" noises, but the cookies tasted like warm butter mixed with sawdust.
Refusing to admit they were that bad, I pounced on D when he walked in the door. “Here, try this,” I said and forcibly shoved a cookie in his mouth. He chewed...and chewed...and chewed, then fled to the fridge for some milk. "Gahhh," he said after a mighty swallow, "not my favourite."
My mother-in-law politely declined my offer to share the cookies with me (“Oh no, you keep them, you’ll need them for your guests”), so I ended up with three dozen nasty shortbread cookies in my freezer that I indeed served to guests throughout the holiday season, accompanied by big cups of eggnog. The cookie press went back where it belonged, in the darkest corner of my least-used cupboard.
I was tempted to send tins to my girlfriends in the city, but wanting to preserve our friendship, I just told them all about my adventures in country woman baking and we had a good laugh. I think they’ll just give me a bottle of wine next Christmas, and maybe a box of store bought biscuits to go with it. My saint of a mother-in-law has promised to give me some recipes for squares, because they're supposed to be "foolproof." It's touching that she still has that much faith in me.